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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Lessons from the Monastery

I read a story in The New York Times about the crisis facing a Trappist monastery. ( In the 1950s, there were 55 monks praying and working at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Now there 13, most of them in their 80s.

I experienced a sense of familiarity when I was reading this article. Although a Trappist monastery and a United Church of Canada congregation are very different in many ways, the basic issue is the same – the passing of a form of religious community and commitment.

The Trappists have it worse than us. There was a time when young men were eager to take a lifelong vow of prayer, silence, manual labour and celibacy. It was viewed as a high calling, and a heroic way of life. And the essence of that way of life – seclusion from the world, resistance to change – makes it all the harder.  

But when you get right down to it, our problems are fundamentally the same. The number of people – especially young people – who find it spiritually and socially meaningful to commit to weekly participation in a congregation is dwindling. Our world operates according to rhythms that make that way of life very difficult. And increasingly people want to chart their own spiritual journeys without the burden of institutional forms.

The irony is that we live in a time of intense spiritual longing. People are feeling fragmented and dislocated, lonely and confused. The dramatic rise in mental health issues, addiction and stress-related illness is testament to the malaise of our culture. People are longing for connectedness, community, purpose, and meaning. They are aching for compassion and rest.

And so here’s the interesting thing about Mepkin Abbey. While the monks are getting old 
and dying, the monastery’s retreat centre is fully booked months in advance.

(The monks have also found that the Abbey grounds are a stunning location for a wedding.)

What this says to me is that, while the specific form of religious observance and commitment is becoming  unsustainable, there is something about the place and what it has to offer that still speaks to people’s souls and draws them to the Abbey.

The monks, God bless them, are trying to change. They are beginning to offer short-term monastic experiences – one month, a year – that don’t require a life-time vow. They know that, even though the supply of novices has dried up, there is still something they can offer.
This provides an analogy to our churches. There are things about us that are unsustainable. 

But are there also things about our churches that people are longing for? Can we find different and imaginative ways to offer those?

Recently, I conducted a workshop at a congregation. I invited people to answer the question “Why don’t more people come to church?” That’s a good, open-ended question.

But then I said, “What if we turn that into a closed question and ask: Are people coming to church? Is it true that they're not coming?” Well, not as many. And not so much on Sunday mornings. But they’re still coming. There might have been 300 and now there are 60, but that’s still 60 people.

And it turns out that people are coming to lots of other things at the church – study groups, community groups, dinners, events. The church is actually a hive of activity all week. 

We seem to be fixated on one single metric: How many people are in worship on a given Sunday.

Not to say that the rapid decline in this number isn’t significant. And not to say that showing up to the monthly community dinner is equivalent to being a fully committed member of the church.

But I believe that, hidden in the interactions the church has with people outside of Sunday morning, and in the connections members of the church have with neighbors, friends, co-workers and strangers, might be clues to how the church will evolve in the future.

We need to explore those connections at a deeper level, and ask how they could provide opportunities to do what the church is really called to do: witness to the liberating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Like the monks of Mepkin Abbey, we have something precious to share for which people are desperately hungry. The future could be right under our noses – if we have the faith and imagination to follow the clues.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Questioning Our Questions

The question I hear most frequently asked in churches is:
How can we attract more people to our church?

This is a challenging question with no easy answer. But sometimes before we can get an answer, we need to probe the question itself. We need to “question our questions,” as Warren Berger puts it in his great book A More Beautiful Question.

What are we really asking when we say, “How can we attract more people?” What if we dug beneath the surface of that question by putting to it another question: “Why?” Like this:

Why do you want to attract more people?
            “Because there are fewer of us and we’re all getting older.”

Why does that matter?
            “We need people to do the work and support the programs.”

“Because if we don’t have enough people, eventually we’ll have to close.”

Why does that matter?
            “I’d be heartbroken. I really love this church.”

Maybe you’ve had that conversation in your church. The thing to notice about it is that the answers are mostly about the church. They mostly have to do with our desire to sustain something that matters to us.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t come to your church. How would this conversation sound to them? It begs another question: “Why would they come? Why should they come?”  

Could we ask that question in a different way? Could we ask it so that it has more to do with them and less to do with us? Could we start by asking “Who are these people we wish would come to our church?” Who is moving into all those new houses being built? Where have they come from? Where do they work? What are their lives like? What are their hopes and fears? What gives them joy? What do they struggle with? How could we get to know them? How could we build a relationship with them?

The number one reason why people come to a church is because someone they know invites them. It’s not catchy signs or websites or flyers dropped in their mailbox. It’s a relationship. So instead of focusing on what they can do for us, what if we focused on how we can get to know them, how we can show them we care about them as more than just potential givers or volunteers?

A different version of this question is: “Why don’t people come to church?” We think about
our kids and grandkids, our neighbors and co-workers, and wonder why so few of them make time for church.

Common answers to that question are:

Too busy.
Sunday sports.
Working weekends.
Overprogrammed kids.
Not committed.
They just don’t care.

But that sounds a lot like blaming them for not caring about something we care about. It makes their absence from church their problem.

Could we ask that question in a different way? Could we reframe it so that it has more to do with us than with them? Could we ask it in such a way that it would move us to look at how we can become more welcoming? To look at whether we are putting up barriers that might be keeping people away? Instead of saying, in effect, “What’s wrong with them that they’re not coming to church?” could we ask how we could strengthen our practices of hospitality, spirituality, worship, community, service?

We can’t control the choices people make about their lives. We can only create the conditions that will make our church a more inviting place to be.

When we ask about attracting people, we should think first about them – who they are, what they need, what are seeking.

And when we ask why they don’t come, we should think first about ourselves – what we could do to make it easier for people to come to church and inviting enough that they’ll want to come back.

Sometimes these questions seem like dead-ends. But maybe we could reframe the questions themselves so they open us to new possibilities.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Different Worlds

My son Aidan makes his living as a musician in Vancouver. He has a regular gig in the lounge at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, a high-end downtown spot with a stunning view of the water and mountains.

We went to hear Aidan play while visiting him and his brother after Christmas. I was perusing the beverage menu looking for something that wasn’t too overpriced, when I came across this:
                        Balvenie 50                                       2600/5200

From the beverage menu
Pacific Rim Hotel
“Hm,” I wondered. “What does that mean?” I realized fairly quickly that it meant that a 1 oz. glass of Balvenie 50-year old Single Malt Scotch Whiskey sells for $2600.00!! If you want a double, it’s $5200.

“Do people order this?” I asked my son. “All the time,” he answered.

Clearly, there are people who will shell out $2600 for an ounce of Scotch. But, equally clearly, they live in a different world than I do, a world I can scarcely comprehend.

But it’s becoming more and more like that, isn’t it? For all our connectedness, we feel like there are worlds of people out there whose lives we can’t even imagine. We are becoming more and more isolated from one another, inhabiting social, economic, political and cultural bubbles, and interacting less and less with people from other worlds.

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  Vance is a Yale educated lawyer, but he grew up in the subculture of Appalachia. His grandfather had moved from Kentucky to Ohio in the 1960s to work in a
factory, but he brought with him his tight-knit hillbilly culture which is the world his grandson J. D. grew up in.

Vance wrote the book to provide a window into the much-maligned and mocked way of life. Reading it really helped me understand people I am quick to dismiss – and to understand why those people helped to propel Donald Trump to the White House.

Our churches say that they welcome everyone. But if that is true, why do our congregations look so much the same? It hard to venture out beyond our comfort zones and encounter people from worlds very different from our own. It takes courage, effort and imagination.

But the ability to do that will become a more and more vital skill, not only to save our churches, to but keep our world liveable.  

As Christians, we need to reach out to people from different worlds. But the reason we must do that is that we affirm another, more profound truth: for all our differences, we all inhabit the same world.

“We are not alone. We live in God’s world.”

This is the crucial and counter-cultural message of the Gospel. In spite of everything that divides us, we share the most important things in common:

We are all made in the image of God.

We are all broken (by what Scripture calls sin).

We are all in need of healing.

We are all loved and forgiven through Christ.

We persist in believing and affirming these things as true of all people, whether they share our faith or not. And these beliefs shape how we live and behave.  

As our world becomes more dangerously fragmented, Christians have a sacred calling to both to encounter people from different worlds, and to announce that we all live in God’s world.

All of us, Even those who can order a $2600 glass of Scotch.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Gift of Unwanted Change

Recently, at a workshop I attended, a young pastor made this observation:

“People in my church want transformation. They just don’t want change.”

What a profoundly insightful comment, I thought.

We want things to be different. But we don’t want to change the way we do things. We want the outcome – transformation. But we don’t want to pay the price – change.

We dream of how our lives – and our churches – could be different from what they are. We imagine our problems solved, our deficits turned into surpluses, our weaknesses transformed into strengths, our past mistakes wiped out and failures overcome. But ask us to give up old habits, to set out on a new path, to break out of the familiar and comfortable – not so much.

The Israelites cried out in their misery and oppression. They hungered for freedom. They longed for transformation. But when they found out that the road to the Promised Land led through the desert – heat, hunger, thirst, danger, uncertainty – and all they had to trust in was the faithfulness of God – they demanded to go back where they had come from – to the slave camps of Egypt. The security of the known and familiar, no matter how unpleasant, trumped the risk of freedom.

Like them, we too long to be transformed. But we can’t be transformed if we insist on keeping everything the same. This is an important message to hear in these times of uncertainty.

But let’s not be too superficial about it. Let’s not talk as if the changes we’re facing – from Presbyteries and Conferences to Regions, for example – are some bold and courageous venture in to the unknown. The truth is that we are where we are because for at least 40 years, we’ve insisted on doing what we’ve always done, and resisted the deep changes that might have led to a transformed church.

But here’s the thing. God knows that we don’t like to change. God knows that, sometimes, we need to be pushed. And change that is forced on us, even though it is deeply unpleasant, can be a moment of great opportunity.

I recently read a book about the desert narratives in the Hebrew Bible by the Jewish scholar
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. (Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.) She pointed out something interesting. When we read the stories of Israel in the desert from Exodus or Numbers or Deuteronomy, they read like tales of unfaithfulness and failure. But later generations of Jewish rabbis interpreted them as stories of spiritual transformation. What the rabbis saw in these narratives was that God had never been closer and more real to Israel than in the desert – in spite of their stubbornness and backsliding and complaining.

So maybe change that is forced upon us has the potential to lead to a richer outcome than change that we are able to carefully manage and control. Maybe its in those perplexing and uncertain times when we can’t control the outcome that God is nearer than ever.

May we have the eyes to see this time of disruptive and largely unwanted change, which is making us all anxious and afraid – may we see it as a moment in which God is very near.

And may be have the courage to embark on the spiritual journey of change that is the path to transformation. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lonely and Confused, Open and Welcoming

One of the people I follow on Twitter is Pope Francis. His Holiness doesn’t tweet very often – not nearly as much as (ahem) certain other world leaders -- but when he does, it’s almost always worth reading.

Recently, the Pope tweeted this:

“How much openness is needed to welcome those who feel alone and confused as they search for a meaning in life!”

I found this such a succinct, powerful description of what the church should aspire to do and to be, it bears repeating.

“How much openness is needed to welcome those who feel alone and confused as they search for a meaning in life!”

Let’s start with the second half of the sentence which describes our culture.

People are lonely. In an age when everybody is more connected than ever before, how
strange is it that we suffer from an epidemic of loneliness. The British journalist George Monbiot recently wrote that “The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us.”

In Japan, elderly people are lying dead in their apartments for weeks or months because no one notices they are missing. Young people have hundreds of Facebook “friends,” but no real friends.

It’s hard for those who have rich, busy lives with lots of social connections to remember just how desperately lonely many people in our society are.

People are confused. In an age of unlimited choice, people don’t know which way to turn. In an age of conspiracy theories and “fake news,” they don’t know what to believe or whom to trust. They are bombarded by so many competing and colliding voices telling them what to do about their jobs, their relationships, their health, their education, their money, their sex lives, they are bewildered and overwhelmed.

People are searching for meaning. Old certainties and securities are crumbling.
Everything is up for grabs. Traditional sources of meaning and stability like career, family and church have been called into question. Who am I? Where am I going? What am I here for? What’s the point? Many people are haunted by these questions every day.

The second half of the Pope’s sentence I hear as a challenge to the Church. We, whose lives are a witness to the Good News of the Gospel, are called to reach out to those who are lonely, confused and searching for meaning.

What Pope Francis says is needed is two things. Openness. And welcome. 

The Church is called to be open. Rightly or wrongly, many people see churches as cozy clubs or closed cliques. Most people think of a church as a building (“That’s First Church on the corner.”) There was a time when those buildings created visibility. People looked at them and knew what they were, and what they could expect if they opened the door and went on inside of them.

Today, those same buildings have become fortresses of invisibility. People have no idea who is behind those walls, or what they stand for, or what strange things go on inside of them.

But they also have a sense, rightly or wrongly, that churches are filled with people who think they’re better than others. Tony Campolo describes a conversation with a sex worker who said she wanted to change her life but didn’t know where to turn for help. “Why don’t you try going to church?” Campolo asked. “Church?” she said. “That’s the last place I would go. I already feel bad enough about myself, I don’t need to feel worse.”

It’s not our intention, but we church people often give the message that we’re mainly focused ourselves, that not really interested in people as they are, we’re only interested in them as potential volunteers or donors. Or we’re only interested in them if they get their act together enough to “fit in.”

We need to understand why people think that, and what we can do to change it. We need to find ways to communicate genuine openness to people’s struggles, learning to listen, to really listen, to their stories without presuming to judge them or fix them. And we need our churches to be safe places where people can be open about what they are going through. Sadly, many people do not feel they can be honest about themselves in church.

The Church is called to be a place of welcome. Church consultant Kennon Callahan says, “All churches are friendly churches – to those who attend them.” But if we were to put ourselves in the place of someone who visits our church– someone who had perhaps not been to church for a long, long time – we would find that we’re not as welcoming as we thought. I’ve had the experience of visiting a church full of lovely, friendly people – who acted like I was invisible. If I, who am totally comfortable in church, find that experience unnerving, imagine what it’s like for someone who has mustered up the courage to come to church and has the feeling they’ve wandered into somebody’s private family gathering.

Hospitality is more than a handshake, a bulletin and an announcement to stay for coffee. 

Hospitality is about creating a culture of welcoming that touches everything from the way our building looks to our announcements to our worship services to the way we greet people and let them know we really are glad to see them.

One of the things I hear in churches most often is, “How can we connect with new people? How can we reach out to our community?”

I can’t think of a better way than to take this one sentence from Pope Francis, to memorize it, to adopt it as your mission, and to figure out what you need to do to put it into action.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Lessons from the Hair Salon

Lately I’ve been thinking about similarities between churches and hair salons.

A woman in one of my former congregations was a hairdresser. She had co-op students from the local high school help her by washing customers’ hair. “It’s amazing,” she said. “If the girl is friendly and talks to the customers, they are always happier with their hair style. If the girl is unfriendly, they’re less satisfied”

I had a student minister at one of my churches. She said that when her internship was done, she was going to take a nail course. She had noticed that many older women lived alone, and often went days or weeks without anyone touching them. She thought it would enhance her ministry if she could do their nails.

Recently I went to get my hair cut. When I arrived, the young woman who cuts my hair said, “Sorry, I’m running a little behind.” As I waited, I listened to her talk patiently and kindly to the previous customer.

When I got in the chair, Phyllis said, “That is one really unhappy woman. She tries to find some meaning in her life by constantly changing her hair style. Because she’s so unhappy, she can be quite demanding. I see my role as more than coloring and styling her hair. I try to listen to her, to pay attention to her, and to gently talk her out of things that really aren’t going to look good.”

“Gee, Phyllis,” I said, “your job is like mine!”

Most churches say they need to reach out to new people. But they are genuinely puzzled by how to do that. “How do we find out what people out there in the community are thinking? What their needs are? What their lives are like?”

Which is ironic, because it involves doing things that most of us do every day. Talking. Asking questions. Listening. Making time for people. Find ways to touch them, either literally or metaphorically.

So why is it that something that happens so naturally at the hair salon – or the coffee shop, or across the back fence -- is so difficult for churches? 

Why is it that churches say they no idea who even lives in the neighborhood around our church, much less knowing what are their needs and wants, their hopes and fears?

I think it has something to do with the underlying motive we start with. When a church says, “We need to get to know people in the community,” the unspoken conclusion to that sentence is, “so we can get them to come to church.”

Let’s be clear. Getting people to come to our churches is not a bad thing. Church is where we find belonging and friendship, joy and fulfillment. We want others to share that experience.

But nine out of ten people say that what brought them to a new church was that a) somebody asked them, and b) when they arrived they felt welcomed and cared for.
Conversely, people say they stopped going to church because they felt like nobody was really interested in them – or only interested in them for their time or their money.
It’s all about relationships. Before we can think about enticing people to come to church, we have to let them know that our first concern is them, not ourselves. We have to find ways to starting and sustaining relationships that aren’t simply a gimmick to get people to join in our activities and programs.

So, what if, instead of first thinking, “We have to get more people to come to our church,” we simply visualized Jesus sending us out to talk, to listen, to pay attention, to love?

What if we got to know our community by simply doing the kinds of things that our
hairdresser does? What if we learned to value people for who they are, not for what they can give us? What if we paid attention to how we welcome people when they do come, so they don’t feel like they’ve wandered into someone’s closed family reunion?

If we are good at doing that, word will get around that our church is a place where people really care about you. We will create the conditions under which people might actually want to come and join us.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Beautiful Questions

If your church compiled a list of FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions – what would be on it?

I don’t mean the official list posted on your website, with information about how to become a member or your wedding policy.

I mean the questions that are really on people’s minds.Like…

Why don’t we sing more old hymns?

When did we start dunking the bread in the juice at communion?

How come the choir doesn’t wear gowns anymore?

Why don’t we learn more new hymns?

Here’s one question that would be on every church’s FAQs list: “Why don’t more young people come to church?” I have heard this question in one form or another in virtually every church I have worked with.

It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the years, and I don’t pretend to have an answer. But lately I’ve been wondering if the problem is not the lack of answers, but the question itself.

In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger argues that questions, not answers, are the key to change. We don’t need more experts with answers, we need more “expert questioners.” In our rapidly changing world, finding the right question can be more critical than finding the right answer.

Berger says we should search for “beautiful questions.” A “beautiful question,” he writes, “is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

“Beautiful questions” are ambitious. They push the limits. But they are actionable. You can do something about them.

“Beautiful questions” change the way we perceive. They help us to see things differently. But they can also change the way we act.

Let’s go back to our frequently asked question, “Why aren’t there more young people in church?’ It is not a beautiful question – at least, not the way it’s normally asked. Usually it doesn’t go anywhere. It seems like a dead-end – a problem without a solution, a question without an answer. Rarely is it asked in such a way that it leads to a change in perception or action.  

Berger says that beautiful questions start with “Why?” But it’s not enough to ask “Why?”
once. He says that, with any problem, we need “Why?” at least five times before we can get far enough below the surface that we get to the root of the issue.

So, let’s try it.

“Why aren’t young people in church?”
            “Why does it matter if young people are in church?”

“Because we’re all getting old and tired.”
            “Why does it matter if you’re getting old and tired?”

“Because soon there won’t be enough of us to do the work.”
            “Why does the work need to be done?”

“Because the church we know and love will have to close down.”
Why does that matter? What would happen if it didn’t survive? Who would miss it?

“We would miss it. It’s been an important part of our lives.”

Ah. It turns out that the question is not so much about the needs and concerns of the young people who aren’t in church, but the needs and concerns of us older folks who are in church. In other words, we want young people to help sustain something that is important to us, not so much to them.

Which raises another question: “Why should they?”

So often when we ask, “Why aren’t young people in church?” we imply that the problem is with them. “We raised our children to go to church. What happened?” We come up with answers like, they’re not committed, they don’t care, young people are self-centred, they’re too busy with sports or work or their cell phones. There is a note of judgment in the very asking of the question.
If we’re really serious about wanting to know why young people don’t come to church, we will turn our attention away from what we want and need and focus on what they want and need. We’ll ask, “What actually matters to young people? How can we find out what matters to them? How can we learn to listen to them, understand, respect their lives, their hopes and dreams, their fears and worries?”
We will stop trying to make them responsible for the decline of our churches and use that question to search our own hearts. When that happens, our dead-end question can be turned into a beautiful question because it will open our hearts to the lives and longings of those people who are not in church. It will be about them and about what God is asking of us.
The next stage in creating a beautiful question is to ask, “What if?”

“What if” creates the freedom to imagine alternatives without having to prove upfront that they will work. What if we did this, rather than doing that? That’s how innovations are born.

But we need to break some old habits. Churches are experts at shutting down “What if?” questions before they even have a chance to take root. We immediately list all the reasons why that will never work. We need to create spaces of openness and curiosity where we can ask “What if?” and not know the answer.

The final stage of a beautiful question is to ask “How?”
“How?” grounds possibilities in the reality of available resources and practical results. But we need to ask “How?” in such a way that we are not defeated before we begin. “How?” is an invitation to experiment, to try things out, to approach things from a different angle, to tinker, and above all, to fail. Failure is an indispensable element on the road to success. Berger’s book is packed with examples of people who tried and failed repeatedly and persistently before they finally got it. So many potentially good ideas die on the vine in churches because we don’t stick with them. 

Asking these questions won’t magically fill your church with young people. But it will lead you on a journey of discovery that may take you to some surprising places with unexpected results. You won’t know until you try. 

We’ve used “Why don’t more young people come to church?” as a test case, but we could apply the same steps to other frequently asked questions. Some examples might be, “What should be do with our aging building?” or “Can we afford a full-time minister?” These questions often feel like dead-ends. But they can be turned into beautiful questions if we approach them in a curious, imaginative, adventurous and faithful spirit.